Photos by Ryan Swerdlin, Review by Max Stewart
As we take a look back on 2019’s SweetWater 420 Fest, it is clear that the festival hit the mark yet again thanks to a well-balanced and cohesive lineup. After a stellar 2018 crop of musicians that included Tedeschi Trucks Band, Umphrey’s McGee, and Sturgill Simpson, this year’s lineup followed suit with musical talent that had both instrumental abilities and danceable songs. Although the weather could have been a little warmer (and drier) on Friday and Saturday, the music kept the crowd moving and Easter Sunday was met with ideal festival conditions. Atlanta has continued to be blessed by SweetWater’s commitment to good tunes and good vibes by keeping the festival in Atlanta proper at downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park. There were many highlights from this year, but we tried our best to narrow down some of our favorites from the event as part of our Sweet 16 Highlights!
1. Jason Isbell Going Toe-to-Toe with Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring:
Watching Widespread Panic‘s guitar wizard Jimmy Herring play ‘guitar riff catch’ alongside former Drive-By Truckers singer-songwriter Jason Isbell was a musical meeting of the minds that will go down in music festival history. Isbell sat in with the band towards the end of their first set to perform Skip James‘ “I’m So Glad” and ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The clinic that both Herring and Isbell put on the instrument (see below) should be part of course material in a Guitar Improvisation 101 class.
2. Widespread Panic’s Unforgettable Homecoming Headliner Shows:
Something about the energy of an outdoor show in WSP’s home state of Georgia made both headlining nights some of their best shows in recent memory. Despite the cold conditions in Atlanta on Saturday night, John Bell threw his Bojangles baseball cap on backwards and the boys from Athens, GA brought the heat in a set that included “All Time Low,” “Surprise Valley,” “Love Tractor,” and covers of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” and Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” The band closed the festival Sunday with rousing renditions of “Ride Me High,” “Climb to Safety,” and some unforgettable collaborations with Jason Isbell.
3. Big Something Fends Off Bad Weather With Ease:
North Carolina’s Big Something is one of the most dynamic bands in the jam band circuit. Their wide-ranging sound has hints of rock, reggae, funk with songs that are accessible and high-tempo. Even though the weather was not cooperating and at one point their sound actually turned off altogether due to the rain, the band showed no signs of getting flustered while keeping the bundled crowd engaged throughout their Saturday afternoon set. Singer / guitarist Nick MacDaniels lit the fuse and lead guitarist Jesse Hensley and trumpet / EWI player Casey Cranford lifted the songs into orbit, especially during “Songs for Us,” a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” and the set closer “The Curse of Julia Brown.”
4. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit Don’t Stick to “Ferris Wheel Music,” And We Should Be Thankful:
Jason Isbell is a once-in-a-generation type musician. He has the guitar chops to have a fiery call-and-response axe battle with Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring, but can also bring shivers down the spines of a festival crowd through a delicate and sincere lyric. Isbell’s album Southeastern should be in the Southern Rock Smithsonian, an earnest collection of songs that detail his journey to sobriety. The album was proudly represented on Sunday (“Flying Over Water,” “Stockholm,” and the tearjerker “Cover Me Up”) alongside songs from The Nashville Sound and Something More Than Free. The 400 Unit are all fully formed musicians as well, including former Drivin ‘N’ Cryin guitarist Sadler Vaden, who plays the slide guitar with such a subtle tenacity, keyboardist Derry deBorja, and a mighty fine rhythm section of Jimbo Hart (bass) and Chad Gamble (drums). While looking upon the Atlanta skyline that included a downtown ferris wheel as he wrapped up the poignant “Speed Trap Town,” Isbell apologized for not playing “ferris wheel music” to the fun-loving festival crowd. Isbell’s music cuts deeper than most, and as listeners we are all better for it.
5. Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass on Easter Sunday:
As Easter Sunday at Centennial Park kicked off the day’s festivities, Keller Williams gave us the sermon the crowd oh-so needed in the warm weather after Saturday’s frigid conditions. In a set made up entirely of bluegrass covers of Grateful Dead tunes, Williams and members from the Eighties-covering bluegrass unit Love Canon played some of the Dead’s favorites as well as some unique gems: “Shakedown Street,” “Wharf Rat,” “Touch of Grey,” and “Alabama Getaway.” No better way to start a beautiful Easter Sunday. Even Williams was in awe of enchanting ATL skyline, missing the bridge but commenting: “I got lost in the moment… I got lost in your eyes Atlanta.”
6. Cory Wong’s Fender Guitar Style Lights Up Friday Afternoon:
Frequent Vulfpeck contributor Cory Wong has a signature guitar style that he plays on his Fender Stratocaster that is a sight to see live, making full use of the instrument’s tones as well as the rhythmic sounds of the strings. His new album, The Optimist, was a central force to Wong’s soulful and funky Friday afternoon set (also check out his new live record Live in Minneapolis for a taste of the live aesthetic).
7. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Keep The Spirit of The Dead Alive:
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has continued their upward momentum in popularity throughout 2019, honoring while bringing new life to the expansive catalog that is the Grateful Dead. Their Friday show included “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “The Other One,” and a simmering version of “Eyes of the World” to close out their set. A centerpiece to the band due to his steadfast mastery of the kit, drummer Joe Russo has perfected the formula of fresh energy and authenticity alongside Marco Benevento (keys), Tom Hamilton (guitar), Dave Dreiwitz (bass…yes, of Ween), and Scott Metzger (guitar).
8. Turkuaz’s Sunday Party (With Easter Colors to Boot):
Nothing will make you shake that thang quite like a Turkuaz show. Complete with a full horn section (Greg Sanderson on Tenor Sax, Josh Schwartz on baritone sax, and Chris Brouwers on trumpet and keys) and two sizzling female vocalists (Sammi Garett and Shira Elias), the band’s ferocious live energy is contagious. The Brooklyn band’s color scheme also could not have been a better way to celebrate the holiday while they played “Nightswimming,” “Make You Famous” and a cover of Hot Chocolate‘s “Every 1’s a Winner.” We like to call it Easter Egg Funk.
9. Billy Strings Solidifies His Place at The Bluegrass Table:
Even at a spry age of 26, Michigan bluegrass phenom Billy Strings has made waves due to his shotgun acoustic picking acumen, matched with a homegrown voice and top tier set of songs. Strings brings a dose of alternative and psychedelic influences to his show, even commenting on his fanhood of Primus’ Les Claypool during his late night show at Terminal West. Although Strings’ late night show started at midnight, the venue was filled with many 420 Fest fans as well as young teenage bluegrass fans at guardrail watching with their jaws dropped at Strings and his band. Expect much more great music from Strings and his band for many years to come.
10. Claypool Lennon Delirium’s Psych-Experimental Set:
For true music fans, there is something so supremely satisfying about non-linear musical compositions. A song that takes you to a place you don’t expect and keeps you engaged and wondering what will come next. Sean Lennon and Les Claypool’s Claypool Lennon Delirium has elements of unique time signatures and progressive rock (they even covered King Crimson’s “The Court of the Crimson King”). It was also impossible to ignore the similarities in John Lennon and Sean Lennon’s voice and cadence, especially when the band played “Blood and Rockets: Movement I, Saga of Jack Parsons” off of their latest album, South of Reality.
11. Everyone Orchestra’s Wonderfully-Chaotic Musical Collaboration:
Everyone Orchestra is a mixture of musical talent that is continually evolving and, therefore, always fresh. Conductor Matt Butler lead a group of talent through a 100% improvised set, which was supremely entertaining way to showcase each individual’s contribution to the musical melting pot. No surprise here, if you put enough talent on one stage something great will naturally happen. SweetWater’s orchestra included Mimi Naja (Fruition), Mike Dillon (Les Claypool), Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass), Ryan Stasik (Umphrey’s McGee), Anders Osborne, and drumming giant Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction).
12. Kalu and the Electric Joint Make Austin Proud:
No doubt that Austin has a knack exporting some of the the most musically-proficient talent out there (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr., Spoon, countless others). That certainly held true for the R&B and soul four-piece that put together a mighty set that included their original tunes “Time Undone” and “Too Low to Get High.”
13. You Gotta Have That Funk:
There was not shortage of funk at the festival, including by Cory Henry & the Funky Apostles and Atlanta’s Voodoo Visionary. Henry and his funk apostles kicked things off on the SweetWater stage on Saturday with a mix of soul, gospel, and blues in their set as well. The ATL local band Voodoo Visionary were the masters of the dance party later in the weekend at the Lyrics & Laughter Stage on Sunday afternoon.
14. Moon Taxi’s Love of the Covers:
Nashville’s Moon Taxi are not opposed to sprinkling in some widely recognized covers into their sets, and Saturday proved no different. From the overnight success “Old Town Road,” to Tears for Fears‘ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and 4 Non Blondes‘ “What’s Up,” the band made sure every member of the audience had their sing along moment at Centennial Olympic Park. Drummer Tyler Ritter also had a thunderous and unique drum solo over a sample of The Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby.”
15. The Band of Heathens’ Southern Sound:
The Band of Heathens‘ Saturday afternoon set had some familiar southern sounding fare in an area where that twang and heartfelt songwriting style was solidified. Although they hail from Texas, the band’s songs such as “Hurricane” and “LA County Blues” had hints of Atlanta acts such as The Black Crowes, Blackberry Smoke, and Macon GA’s The Allman Brothers Band.
16. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong Continue to Fly High:
Maryland’s PPPP have been a mainstay force in the jam band community over the past few years, flocking to all of the major festivals throughout the country. On the wings of singer / guitarist Greg Ormont (“Scrambled Greg”), PPPP maintained a fun-filled spin on their highly improvised live sets. Playing songs like “Horizon,” “F.U.”, and opener “Porcupine” in Atlanta had the Sunday crowd shaking in the Sunday afternoon sun.
Check out some photos from the event below! We are already looking forward to SweetWater 420 Fest in 2020 (or… SweetWater 42020 Fest, perhaps?)